DESIGNED ESPECIALLY for families, a unique new exhibition at the National Museum of African Art offers youngsters an up-close, hands-on look at how their counterparts in faraway countries are kindred spirits with regard to creativity, imagination and merrymaking.

"Playful Performers" showcases the colorful experience of children's masquerades, through which kids in western and central African countries create their own ingenious masks, costumes and choreography to mimic adults' participation in traditional ceremonies. In some cultural celebrations, youngsters and grown-ups take part together in dancing and pageantry.

The "Playful Performers" concept came about largely as a result of chief curator David A. Binkley's field research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). While observing adults' rites of passage, such as initiation ceremonies and funerals, Binkley noticed that young boys often fashioned their own masks and costumes from natural and found materials in attempts to mimic the grown-ups' actions. He also found that parents use masks to teach object lessons and to pique children's interest in their cultural heritage.

"Part of the allure is that they're secret," Binkley says. "It's a very sophisticated way for adults to prepare children" to carry on traditions.

The exhibition features interactive components aimed to make it "much more dynamic than a static display in a museum," says Veronika Jenke, curator of education. "We interviewed children to get a sense of what they think about African masks" and how the material could be presented to engage a young audience. The resulting design grabs visitors' attention through such elements as life-size color photos of youngsters and their masks, mannequins assuming dancelike poses and clad in full costume, and hands-on projects.

At the center of the room, a large viewing screen displays continuous videotape presentations of authentic African masquerades, complete with percussive music. The planned open space around the exhibit encourages children to imitate the dance steps, Jenke says. Nearby, a parent-child mannequin pair, looking ready to join in, wear the elaborately detailed, multihued Ancient Mother and Little One costumes of Nigeria's Okpella peoples. The mother figure wears an enormous headdress adorned with dolls, while the accompanying costumed youngster represents a child who has jumped off the hat.

At a recent exhibition preview attended by several families, kids looking around at the many masks on display agree: the bigger the better. They're drawn to a cluster of huge papier-mache full masks worn during Guinea-Bissau's Carnival festival.

"They're really unique, and they kind of look like monsters and they have people on top of [their heads]," says Kali Conklin, a 9-year-old student at Georgetown Day School.

The grotesque-looking heads convey important messages. A demonic yellow character, whose wide-open purple mouth shows off dozens of teeth, bears the figure of a man waving two flags and carrying a dove to represent peace. Another scary creature carries a person-like syringe as a reminder to get vaccinated. Text with the display explains that the detailed creations often result from teamwork: "Boys from different neighborhoods put aside differences to form mask-making groups and work on a fun project for a common goal."

The unique masks on display inspire youngsters to spend some time drawing with colored pencils at two art stations, one on either side of the room. At one table, kids try to copy a mask of their choice from photographs. The other area encourages kids to create their own designs, which they may choose to leave behind to be posted in the exhibition or at an online gallery on the museum's Web site. Like the objects on exhibit, each youngster's drawing is unique: One features black-and-white striped horns and a multicolored face, while another boasts yellow teeth, blue-rimmed eyeholes and an orange nose.

A favorite photo opportunity features three masks mounted on child-high poles, behind which kids can stand and pose. Another display lets visitors look through eyeholes to get a feel for how the surrounding crowd looks to a masked performer.

"The perspective that the performer has is like a tiny little telescope," Jenke says.

Questions decorating the orange walls provide conversation starters for parents and children: "When do you dance?" "Do you belong to a club?" "What would you use to make a costume?"

Kids may even draw inspiration for their own Halloween or Purim costumes when they learn how African kids use materials such as leaves and even cardboard soap boxes to create their designs.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- 950 Independence Ave. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202-357-4600. Daily 10 to 5:30. Free. "Playful Performers" runs through Dec. 12. Upcoming free activities for families include the following:

Saturday at 10:30 a.m. -- In Lecture Hall, Sublevel 2, "Let's Read About Africa" features a reading of "African Masks: Can You Spot the Leopard?," followed by a visit to "Playful Performers" and a maskmaking workshop.

July 7 and 21 at 10:30 a.m. -- In Lecture Hall, Sublevel 2, the "Films for Young Audiences" program offers two selections: "Hot Hippo" and "Koi and the Kola Nuts."

July 8 at 10:30 a.m. -- In Lecture Hall, Sublevel 2, storyteller Baba Jamal Koram presents African folk tales.

July 10 and 17 at 1:30 p.m. -- In Workshop, Sublevel 2, children can attend a hands-on workshop, "The Big Cover-up! Making Masks," in conjunction with "Playful Performers."

July 14 at 10:30 a.m. -- In Lecture Hall, Sublevel 2, "Films for Young Audiences" selections include "Village of Round and Square Houses" and "How the Leopard Got His Spots."

July 15 and 22 at 10:30 a.m. -- At the Pavilion, Auntie Oye and Joseph Ngwa tell African folk tales.

July 17 at 2 p.m. -- Meet at the Pavilion Information Desk for a guided tour of "Playful Performers."

July 29, 30 and 31 -- In the Lecture Hall, Sublevel 2, "Let's Read About Africa" features the book "Beatrice's Goat" and a related hands-on activity.